Clarissa!

Posted on: 20 Nov 2018 by Terry Victor

The creator of Fragments of Ash and Awkward Turtle Flips the Bird writes about his cinematic new play which can be seen in Chapter from 13th to 15th December.

Clarissa is an icon. Now she is at the end of a long life of corrosive celebrity and remarkable indulgence. From New York on the first night of the talkies to the London riots in 2011 she has quite a story to tell. Mary Pickford, Virginia Woolf, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Edward & Mrs Simpson, the Rat Pack, and Barbara Windsor are among the many luminaries who get a nod or a namedrop. CLARISSA! is a love story that bumps its way through the movie censorship of the Hay’s Code, the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the glamour and the glory of World War II, Soho gangsters, the Bloomsbury Set, Hollywood, Las Vegas, the London Palladium and Guernica. It’s a quite extraordinary journey.

In fact, CLARISSA! is a piece of work that has been a long time coming. It was first conceived, by request, sometime in the noughties, as a structured cabaret. It took me a good while to work out that there was more going on beneath the surface of the story that emerged than was needed as an excuse to sing some songs. Good songs but…  So nothing happened for a bit. Then, after a couple of years gathering fictional dust on a pretend shelf, the old idea that radio has the best pictures gave fresh impetus to a new script and demo recording. It was better: the shifted focus revealed a lot more but somehow it still didn’t reach the corners of Clarissa’s mind. Yet her story kept nagging to be told.

Originally, I had presumed that because this is the story of a very old lady we would need to cast an actor who was at least heading towards that upper age range. Suspend your disbelief! This is theatre. It simply required a change of mind-set and finding the right collaborators.

From those first faltering cabaret steps CLARISSA! has been collaboratively re-imagined. It has now become an innovative visual and theatrical feast, a celebration of life in light and dark. Honestly, I have to hold my breath just thinking about it. In Angharad Berrow we have a brilliant young actor capable of breathing real life into well-polished words while meeting the physical challenges of Tamsin Griffiths’ interpretive choreography. BAFTA Cymru-nominated Christian Britten’s cinematic imaginings give Clarissa’s world a shimmering substance. You, me, we, the audience, are invited to live in the memories of a woman who has actually been there and done that. To that end the setting incorporates a stage-wide screen on which the small details and broad sweeps of her life flicker and fade.

Clarissa is a strong, independent woman who has and survived and prospered in the entertainment industry when MeToo was unconsidered and unspoken. It will not be a hashtag until after she has passed. Her dialogue crackles with chat-show-honed wit but beneath the cosmetic surface there is a world of hurt. For me this play is about memory and loss, war and love, masks, the price of celebrity, diminished capacity and getting old.

In truth, Clarissa is easy to love but harder to like, and CLARISSA! is not just the story she tells. Well, we all tell ourselves lies but in this production a light that lets us see the price paid for her celebrity can sometimes shine between the cracks in her mind.

My original script could well have languished on my figurative shelf forever, and that would have been that. However, a timely visit to Madrid kicked CLARISSA! back into consciousness. I visited the Museo Reina Sofia. Picasso’s Guernica hangs there. It is a huge canvas. And wonderfully, horribly moving. And at the very heart of this play of ours. I went back to see it again this year. If you don’t know the picture: it’s a howl of anguish. Guernica is the splinter in the heart of Clarissa’s celebrated life.

Clarissa makes me laugh, she makes me cry, but I wrote her and even I don’t know if I can believe her.

If you can’t get to Chapter on the 13, 14 or 15th of December why not book yourself a consolatory ticket to Madrid? It would make me happiest if you did both. You deserve a pre-Christmas treat.

Click here to discover CLARISSA! and book your tickets now!

 

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